Construction crews doing seismic retrofitting work on the Salt Lake Tabernacle on Temple Square apparently have unearthed the remains of a Native American in a concrete vault.
A statement issued late Tuesday by Scott Trotter, a spokesman for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said the remains were originally uncovered while excavating under the Tabernacle in the 1960s, and at that time, the "Utah State archaeologist determined (them) to be those of a Native American."
"The remains dated back to a time prior to the arrival of the Mormon pioneers in 1847," the statement said. "The bones were offered for reburial at that time to Native American tribes in the area, but because a tribal identification could not be made, they declined the offer. Under the direction of a Native American spiritual leader, the remains (at that time) were re-interred in a concrete vault where they were discovered."
Trotter said the vault has been left at its original site. "We will continue to do everything that can be done to see that the remains are treated with proper reverence and respect."
Trotter said additional details including when and where the remains were most recently discovered under the building were not immediately available.
Forrest Cuch, executive director of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs, said Tuesday afternoon he had just been notified of the situation. He said he e-mailed state archaeologist Kevin Jones and the Native American Remains Review Committee.
"Usually the procedure is they notify Kevin Jones first," Cuch said. "We just need to get Kevin on the site. He's our key man when it comes to things like this."
He said the Native American Remains Review Committee probably wouldn't respond until it had more information from Jones or himself, and "right now they have very little information."
Cuch said he understood a medicine man had overseen the initial reburial.
"The tribes do prefer (a body) to be re-buried at the (original) site, if possible," he said.
Details of state and federal laws governing the procedure for dealing with such a find have evolved since the 1960s, Cuch said. A 1990 federal statute and a 1992 state law require analysis by a cultural anthropologist or forensics expert. Once cultural affiliation is established, the remains are repatriated or placed in the state burial vault.
"The statute is very vague. We're engaged in tightening up those loopholes," Cuch said.
Whether the lack of immediate notification to state officials about the find violated the law is unclear.
Jones told the Deseret Morning News on Tuesday morning he had not been contacted and didn't know about the discovery.
"In general, we have a law called 'Abuse and Desecrating of a Dead Human Body,' which makes it illegal for anyone to move, remove, destroy or damage a dead human body or any part thereof, without a court order, unless they're operating lawfully under one of several other statutes," Jones said.
In such cases, there is no violation of the law if the remains are handled in compliance with the Antiquity Act, the Utah Medical Examiner's Act, the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act (use of dead bodies for medical purposes), the Funeral Services Licensing Act or the Utah Medical Practice Act, Jones said.
The LDS Church encountered controversy in 1999 when the bones of 10 men, women and children murdered during the infamous 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre in southern Utah were accidentally unearthed by a backhoe during construction of a monument to honor the 120 victims. The bones were quietly shipped to Brigham Young University for an archaeological evaluation before eventual reburial, but their removal elicited the ire of descendants and some concern from state officials.
The Temple Square discovery jibes with what is known historically about the Fremont Indians, who settled in the Salt Lake City area, according to Richard Talbot, director of the Office of Public Archaeology at Brigham Young University.
Though he was unaware of the discovery on Temple Square, Talbot said during excavation for the TRAX light-rail line on South Temple between 200 West and 300 West back in 1998, he and other archaeologists found evidence of a Fremont Indian village dating from 900 A.D. to 1300 A.D., the "late Fremont period."
What is now known as City Creek ran through the area, attracting settlement "anywhere along the whole City Creek alluvial fan. . . . The evidence so far shows a large Fremont Indian village basically underneath downtown Salt Lake."
Without analysis, it isn't known whether the remains are from that period or ethnic group, "but we know the Utes and other groups lived in that area as well. It's very possible those kinds of groups could have lived on and buried their dead in the same general area."
As for the possible presence of additional remains under the Tabernacle, Talbot said Fremont Indians didn't typically use common burial grounds. "They would bury people anywhere it is convenient."
One book detailing the original construction of the Salt Lake Tabernacle offered no detailed information about the extent of excavation done there in the 1860s. But a news account from the summer of 1968 detailing major excavation work under the building to create room for storage and broadcasting equipment said, "The world-famous structure practically rested on the ground," with only a single tunnel and several small utility rooms built under the floor at the west end.